The point that NFL games have been efficiently officiated again this fall, as usual, is compelling. And I'd say that on the whole it's true.
At the same time it is obvious that there have been too many penalty calls this season. Waves of falling flags often mar the product.
The officials, however, aren't primarily at fault for that.
This is a problem with three other causes that can't all be fixed:
As a game, football is severely difficult to play well without making mistakes.
Many coaches don't do as much as they could to field properly disciplined athletes.
The NFL's 32 teams are so evenly matched these days that many players, seeking an edge with inappropriate moves, take chances they might not be guilty of in less competitive times. The simplest example is the blocker who, in a struggle with a pass rusher during a big play, might illegally hold him away from his quarterback.
Poor Officials? That's Fiction
AS SOME OF you may hear Sunday when the game of the week pairs Green Bay (8-2) at Tampa Bay (8-2) — on second thought, that might be the matchup of the year — the fiction that pro games are sometimes poorly officiated is still out there. The loudest complaints come from those who have a strong partisan interest in the result. What happens typically is that following a series of flying flags, a flag is thrown against them on what seems a close call. After the screams, though, most complaints, on examination, prove faulty or flimsy. Check it out.
One of the most controversial of penalty plays is pass interference — which could well be called more than once Sunday when a Green Bay receiver, say Terry Glenn, is trying to elude Tampa Bay corner Ronde Barber, or when Packer corner Tyrone Williams is trying to cover Buccaneer receiver Keyshawn Johnson. In many pro games again this year, the usual complaint has been that the defensive error, if any, "didn't look that bad." But as every coach and official knows, there needn't be much contact to ruin a closely timed pass play. Completions are hard enough to get when the coverage is legal. When it's the slightest bit illegal, a completion is often out of the question. What's right or good about that?
Good Officiating NFL Priority
THE HARDEST JOB in competitive sports, perhaps, next to playing quarterback effectively on an NFL field or hitting a pitched ball — the two athletic assignments that seem one-two in difficulty — is officiating NFL games. With 22 grown men flying around on every play, it's impossible to make all calls accurately.
Playing linebacker is easier. Refereeing NBA games, in a five-man sport, is easier. Umpiring baseball games is much easier.
Yet NFL officials maintain a high standard of excellence. Chosen from the ranks of the best of college officials, they're as gifted and mature in their field as the veteran stars of college football who staff each pro club.
Despite some perceptions to the contrary, one explanation for the officiating's efficiency is that the league office makes it a priority, weighing in with improvements frequently. Lately, for example, game referees have had more influence at New York headquarters. As NFL Executive Vice President Joe Browne said: "There has been more buy-in from the refs this year."
The league-office staff that on Mondays reviews the tapes of Sunday's games, putting every play under a microscope, has been joined by "two or three of Sunday's refs" each week, Browne said. The referees help grade the officials, bringing live advice to the taped action. They also help counteract the impression that separate groups are involved, the referees in the field and the judges in New York. They're all in this together.
You're Fully Extended? More Errors
SOME THINGS CAN'T be changed. Football is so complicated that it's impossible to play the game errorlessly. And unlike those making mistakes in other fields, people who make mistakes on a football field are subject to instant penalty.
The symptoms — fluttering flags — have appeared all over the league this season along with increasing parity in nearly every division. The exact problem, if it is a problem, is that there are too many good players on too many good teams.
This nationwide parity means that in order to compete on every snap, talented professionals must perform at the extreme limits of their talent. And as psychologist Bruce Ogilvie said, "You tend to make more errors when the threat is overwhelming and you're fully extended over a period of time."
Offensive Talent Best Ever
THUS AFTER THE season's first several weeks, the league is crowded with 5-4 and 5-5 teams, along with some .600 and .400 teams — suggesting to some fans that pro clubs are all mediocre, if that. But how can you prove mediocrity by the standings?
If the 32 teams all finished 8-8, it could mean they were the 32 greatest teams of all-time, or at least the best of recent years, not the most mediocre.
Of one thing, you can be sure. There are more great offensive players than ever this season — from Michael Vick, Terrell Owens and Brett Favre to Priest Holmes, Donovan McNabb, LaDainian Tomlinson, Marvin Harrison, Eric Moulds, Corey Dillon, Emmitt Smith, Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice, Jeremy Shockey, Peyton Manning, Deuce McAlister, Tom Brady, Jeff Garcia, Drew Bledsoe, Marshall Faulk, and countless others.
Each week, big crowds watch such players author one improbably wonderful play after another.
When offensive talent as obviously superior as this gets stopped often in a season of parity, it must mean that the defensive talent is also well qualified. What you're seeing, therefore, I'd say, is a number of good offensive teams matched against a number of good defensive teams.
Play-Calling Knocks Down Saints
THE PROBLEM on some clubs which have parity talent is mediocre play-calling. According to wire-service reports, some of New Orleans' most prominent players have agreed that two things were the difference in the Saints' 24-17 Week 11 defeat at Atlanta: 1) Falcon quarterback Vick beat their defensive team, and 2) their own coaches' offensive play-calling beat their offensive team.
Asked if he was held back by the conservative calls that came in from the bench, New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks said, "Honestly, yes. We have some explosive offensive players" who weren't allowed to explode. Or as New Orleans receiver Joe Horn said: "When the other team keeps eight defensive players in the box [close to the line of scrimmage] it makes you wonder what some people are thinking" when they keep sending in running-play calls.
Against a secondary manned by only three pass-defense players, Brooks was asked to throw only 31 times all day, including the swarm of passes he delivered in the fourth quarter when the Saints, playing catch-up, scored on two of his throws to make the final score seem closer than the game was in reality.
By comparison with Brooks' 31 passes, running back McAlister ran the ball 43 times but totaled just 75 yards as the coaches made a long, futile effort to keep Vick off the field instead of a concerted effort to outscore the Atlanta rookie who is a candidate for best football player of all time. As New Orleans defensive tackle Norman Hand, an eight-year veteran, said: "Vick is the best I've ever played against. We've never seen the likes of him in the NFL."
Five Guesses on the Big Games
LET'S PLAY THE guessing game on the NFL's five big ones of Week 12:
Green Bay to win by two points over Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium: The Packers will attack with the best quarterback they have, Brett Favre, whereas Tampa's best, Shaun King, is still where Coach Jon Gruden seems to want him, on the bench.
Buffalo to upset the New York Jets by a touchdown at East Rutherford: The Bills are steadier.
San Diego to upset Miami by three points at Pro Player Stadium: This would be a cinch for Charger quarterback Drew Brees at home. His problem is that the Dolphins are also powerful at home.
St. Louis by two or three at Washington's FedEx Field: In other years, Ram quarterback Kurt Warner hasn't scintillated after an injury layoff.
San Francisco by a touchdown over Philadelphia on Monday night at Candlestick Point: The Eagles' immediate future depends on whether their defense can keep them in contention.